Internet Shakespeare Editions

Author: Hardin Aasand
Peer Reviewed

The Winter's Tale: Performance History


14The Twentieth Century and the "Shakespearean Revolution"

Productions of the play during the twentieth century sought to resurrect Shakespeare's play as written, avoiding both the excessive trimming that marked the eighteenth-century productions and the lavish spectacle of the great nineteenth-century actor- managers. On September 21, 1912, Harley Granville-Barker's The Winter's Tale was performed with minimal textual excisions. The stage, costuming (inspired by Giulio Romano), innovative lighting, and naturalized performances reaffirmed the primacy of a text subjected earlier to neo-classical adaptation and sentimental excess. Stripping away the Victorian veneer of pictorial realism and a framed construction, Granville-Barker paid homage to the play's internal drama and created the template for most modern productions.

15His decision to create a thrust stage over the orchestra pit and insert an interior inset stage created a playing area of depth and space. The imaginative use of white columns and curtains embodied the Sicilian court, and the impression of a thatched cottage with leaf-patterned curtains for exterior scenes conveyed the arrival in Bohemia. Henry Ainley, Lillah McCarthy, and Cathleen Nesbitt each conveyed realistically the manic abruptness a jealous Leontes, the dignified repose of the wronged Hermione, and the naïve, bucolic youthfulness of a fresh Perdita. English poet John Masefield characterizes the significance of Granville-Barker's production in these terms: "The performance seemed to me to be a riper and juster piece of Shakespearean criticism than I have seen hitherto in print" (Bartholomeusz 164).

16If Barker's 1912 production gave its audience a Leontes with severe psychic disturbance, an insecure and clearly undignified neurotic, the Phoenix Theatre forty years later provided a nuanced performance by John Gielguid, whose Leontes is matched by Diana Wynyard's gentle, gracious Hermione. Gielgud's Leontes demonstrates a jealousy that mounts from an initial quietness that reaches fever pitch during his query to Camillo, "Is this whispering nothing?" Flora Robson's Paulina was a determined, loyal presence in the play. She is "Fury-like" (Venezky 338) in her denunciations of Leontes. The play's pastoral elements paled next to the tragic intensity of the scenes in Sicilia. Much of this diminution can be attributed to Brook's decision to remove the satyr dance from the sheep-shearing festival. Brook also excised the opening scene with Camillo and Archidamus and the scene with Cleomines and Dion's arrival from Delphi. The performances enhanced a production for which the multiple stages proved "cumbersome" and awkward in promoting organic, fluid staging. Despite the omissions and the imbalance between the Sicilian and Bohemian sequences, the production at the Phoenix Theatre ran a spectacular 162 performances.

17The Stratford performances at the Memorial Theatre in the latter half of the twentieth century reflect directors who treat the stage as extensions of the psychic state of the play's protagonists. Anthony Quayle's 1948 production transformed the domestic dynamics into a "fairy tale" in which Esmond Knight's Leontes is played as a "tyrant" devoid of nuance or subtlety. Sicily was treated as a Slavic kingdom; Bohemia is transformed into a steppe-like wilderness with Paul Scofield's Clown accentuating the actor's Warwickshire origins. Peter Wood's 1960 production opted to recreate a Renaissance court, replete with Gothic arches and flourishes of courtly magnificence (Tatspaugh 29ff). Eric Porter's Leontes is an urbane, passionate husband propelled by his misunderstanding of Hermione's innocent "If you first sinned with us," to a jealousy that was both reasonable and extreme. His portrait of a man driven to jealousy by the paddling of palms and free expression of Hermione's hospitality was lauded as even superior to Gielgud's highly esteemed performance of a decade earlier. In this production, Time (in the guise of Derek Godfrey) is an elegant, eloquent figure with an hour-glass who seemingly supervises the entrances and exits of the play's characters during the transition: summoning forth the arrival and departure in a dumb show of Leontes in his decline and the pastoral meetings of Florizel and Perdita in Bohemia.

18Productions in the latter twentieth century attempted to design a stage that reflected both Sicilia's upheaval and Bohemia's bucolic spirit. Late Stratford productions (Trevor Nunn in 1969; John Barton and Nunn in a 1976 joint production) emphasize Leontes's psychic break through the use of a symbolic stage to suggest the emotional tenor of jealousy that overwhelms Sicilia in the first half of the play. Indeed, Nunn's 1969 production marks a change of style and dramatic vision from Wood's 1960 Renaissance spectacle. Nunn deployed a white box set which allowed for an imaginative use of spare symbols:

. . . the figure of Leontes, arms outstretched as if crucified, turning in anguish, appeared in an erect, rectangular box or case with mirrored walls which was placed in the centre of the stage and revealed in flashes of light while a part of Time's speech was heard through the darkness: "I that please some, try all . . . ." (Bartholomeusz 213; also see Tatspaugh 33ff)

19This mirrored box and the novel use of Time's speech reflect the creative forces that connected Leonte's tortured state, Time's role in human dynamics, and Hermione's statued imprisonment (all three step out of the same perspex box). The opening scene of a white nursery with toys and a white rocking horse captured both the innocence of Mamillius's world and the more insidious forces that destroy this innocence: Hermione is a "hobby horse," the battered doll capturing the domestic violence that unfolds, and the spinning top the fragile core of Leontes's self-display. The Bohemia of this production was not the Russian steppes or a simple pastoral but rather a more contemporary modish community of rock music and contemporary Carnaby Street ambience. More controversial was the decision to have Judi Dench double both Perdita and Hermione, which had been done by Mary Anderson a century earlier. The choice of having Perdita onstage speaking to the statue made for awkward staging as Judi Dench was forced to move offstage to take her place within the mirrored box while a double returned to occupy the Perdita space that Dench was forced to vacate (see Tatspaugh).

20The joint Nunn and Barton production of 1976 invested the play with even more symbolic use of the stage. The world of Sicily is a Lapland rife with bear imagery characterized by one critic as "totemic": Polixenes dons a bear-skin blanket and becomes the imaginary bear hunted down by the playful Mamillius, a blanket that will then be later wrapped around Hermione's shoulders. The implicit threat of this Sicily is incarnated in Ian McKellan's Leontes, whose jealousy is unpredictable and rash. Here McKellen follows Macready and Gielguid in establishing an anguish borne from deep-seated origins. He renders as palpable the evil moving within his psyche. John Nettles, who would play Leontes in Nunn's later 1992 production, doubled both the roles of Time and the bear in this joint production. Antigonus's demise is not treated realistically but mythically: Time holds a symbolic bear mask before his face, striking a stick upon the stage to signal Antigonus's forced removal from the stage.

21Ronald Eyre's 1981 production eschewed the 1976 symbolism for a spare and minimalist approach, often emphasizing the theatricality of the performance: prop tables visible for the audience, actors in the wings visibly waiting for their entrances, the opening of 1.2 in which actors put on their costumes and take props for the opening masque (Hermione a sheaf of wheat; Polixenes and Leontes crowns and robes from tailors' dummies). Autolycus appears with a giant bear and an oversized Father Time enters wearing a giant robe patterned in astronomical figures from the winter consellation. Mamilius creeps out from beneath Time's robe to begin the scene. Patrick Stewart's Leontes is suspicious at the outset, and his jealousy seems organic and developed. Stewart's scenes with Gemma Jones' Hermione are thus tinged with a latent tension.

22Terry Hands' 1984 and Noble's 1992 productions avoided the starkness of the 1981 Eyres' production, returning to the symbolism of earlier 60's productions: Hands adorned the white set with a scrim to set off the playing areas, a romantic ambience of dramatic set pieces with nursery toys, lighting and reflective surfaces overhead and below that hinted at distortions of the opening scenes of bliss; Noble's "gauze box" could be warmly lit or darkly opaque, flexibly allowing for still-life vignettes and dynamic action spilling out to the main stage. For Hands, Jeremy Irons made Leontes a sardonic husband to Penny Downie's flirtatious Hermione, a man whose fragile marriage makes his jealousy both justifiable and rational. For Noble, John Nettles' Leontes is blissfully in love with Samantha Bond's Hermione, and his jealousy is sudden, violent, and reflected in the lighting that turned to a chilly blue against the floor covered with fissures that reflect the breakage of the romantic promise.

23The stage in Gregory Doran's 1999 production was a perspective stage created by five pairs of sliding panels that narrowed to convey Leonte's (Anthony Sher) paranoia and insularity. Doran also used sound to suggest suspicious voices and secrets emanating in the psyche of an increasingly paranoid Leontes. The billowy curtains overhead created a threatening gesture that reflected Leontes' descent into a "psychotic jealousy" that cripples him emotionally, which internalizes the physical handicap of the wheelchair-ridden Mamillus (Emily Bruni, who also doubled Perdita). Unlike Jeremy Iron's ironic Leontes, Anthony Sher's Leontes is pathetic and ultimately brutalized by a vindictive Paulina who physically throws him across the stage following the reading of the oracle. Hermione's eventual restoration to him is a therapeutic necessity for his mental health.